2022 Dennis Shields Prizes Celebrate Postdoctoral Research Excellence

The Belfer Institute for Advanced Biomedical Studies celebrated the 19th annual Dennis Shields Postdoctoral Research Prizes on Thursday, Nov. 10, during an event that honored two scientists whose research and published work exemplify excellence in their fields.

Anne Bresnick, Ph.D., associate dean for postdoctoral affairs and director of the Belfer Institute, greeted the audience of faculty, students, staff, and fellow postdocs in LeFrak Auditorium at the Michael F. Price Center. Gordon Tomaselli, M.D., the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz dean at Einstein, presented each outstanding researcher with a check for $5,000.

This year's winners, Ashleigh Paparella, Ph.D., and Emmanouil Zacharioudakis, Ph.D., are both biochemistry investigators. The annual award, established in 2004, was renamed for Dennis Shields, Ph.D., who was a professor of developmental and molecular biology and of anatomy and structural biology at Einstein for 30 years until his death in 2008.

“Dennis was a true champion for postdocs,” said Dr. Bresnick, who is also a professor of biochemistry at Einstein and associate director for cancer research training and education at Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center. “These prizes honor his memory and the legacy he established as the first director of the Belfer Institute.”

The two honorees presented their published research during the event.

Dr. Paparella’s work was conducted in the laboratory of Vern Schramm, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and the Ruth Merns Chair in Biochemistry. Her research, published in Nature Communications in November 2021, focuses on the notorious intestinal bacterium Clostridium difficile, which releases toxic enzymes (Toxin A and Toxin B) that damage the gut wall, sometimes fatally.

Dr. Paparella designed compounds, known as transition state analogues, to inhibit the toxins. She reported that the analogues, isofagomine and noeuromycin, prevented Toxin A- and Toxin B-induced cytotoxicity in cultured mammalian cells and could potentially serve as new therapeutics for C. difficile infection.

Dr. Zacharioudakis’ research was performed in the lab of Evripidis Gavathiotis, Ph.D, professor of biochemistry and of medicine. In his study, published in Nature Communications in July 2022, Dr. Zacharioudakis investigated mitochondria, which fuse their membranes when they need to produce more energy and function optimally under stress—a process regulated by proteins called mitofusins. Disrupted mitofusin activity can lead to neurodegenerative diseases, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.

Dr. Zacharioudakis developed the first small molecules that can control mitochondrial function by either activating or inhibiting mitofusins activity. He also found that using the molecules to inhibit mitochondrial fusion primes cells for apoptosis (programmed cell death) and sensitizes cancer cells to apoptosis-inducing drugs.